Dressed in kasaya, the dark red robe of a Buddhist monk, Tashi Sang'e stood out among some 1,500 conservationists from all over the world. It took him three days to travel from his home in Qinghai province to Beijing to attend the annual conference of the Society for Conservation Biology.
Tashi Sang'e started his presentation by telling the story of a rare bird, Koslowi's bunting. The small seed-eating bird was named in 1900 but was cited less than 10 times in scholarly studies through the 1990s.
The tale of Koslowi's bunting has implications that go far beyond the insights of a bird watcher. It is a testimony to the imminent threat of global warming.
In the mountains where he lives, Tashi Sang'e has noticed that the traditional routines of some migratory birds are changing. In the past, these birds usually arrived in April and flew south before November. But in the past few years, they have come in March and stay well into November.
"Some simply spend the winter here," he told me.
In seven paintings, he showed how much the environment of his home has changed. Twenty-five years ago, glaciers covered most of the peaks. Green pastures occupy almost two-thirds of the painting from 1984; a large blue lake is also prominent.
In the following five paintings, the glaciers recede, the lake grows smaller, and the pastures gradually disappear. In the most recent painting, snow remains only on one mountain top, the blue lake has turned to marsh, and most of the green pastures have dried up.
In our drive to improve our standard of living, we humans have done more damage than we ever imagined. We have cut trees, used up fossil fuels, and released a lot of heat-trapping gases, all of which have contributed to global warming.
For years, scientists and others debated the causes and effects of global warming. Today, however, there is no longer any reasonable doubt that our relentless development is having disastrous consequences.
Mother Nature has suffered. Entire species of wildlife are threatened with extinction; many plants have already disappeared.
We humans are also starting to suffer. We have fewer pastures to herd our cattle and sheep, less clean water to drink, and more volatile weather to deal with.
"I really don't know what we Tibetan herdspeople will do once all the pastures and the lake are gone," Tashi Sang'e said.
Sadly, the changes that Tashi Sang'e has recorded in his paintings are not restricted to his home in Tibet, but are taking place all over the world. Fragile nature reserves and farming areas like those in western China are increasingly threatened by construction projects and short-sighted development policies.
As a community leader in ecology, Tashi Sang'e has shown how individuals can make a difference. He and his fellow monks work closely with local herdspeople to study and monitor their environment. Their work has helped enrich our knowledge of the local wildlife.
Meanwhile, Tashi Sang'e and the members of his association have been able to persuade local herders to change their way of herding so that Koslowi's bunting will have a greater chance to survive.
Similar efforts should be made at the national level to ensure that new projects, no matter how much they promise to improve our standard of living, limit their impact on Mother Nature.
World leaders should follow the example of Tashi Sang'e and his NGO members in committing themselves and their countries to deal with the threat of global warming at the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Conference. The survival of Koslowi's bunting and of our own species depend on it.
(China Daily 07/16/2009 page9)